Invercargill: Blast from the past

By Jacqui Madelin

Visiting Invercargill for the week-long Burt Munro Challenge offers more than just an adrenalin rush, writes Jacqui Madelin.

Burt Munro's iconic Indian puts Invercargill on the motorsport map. Photo / Jacqui Madelin
Burt Munro's iconic Indian puts Invercargill on the motorsport map. Photo / Jacqui Madelin

Invercargill has a sense of humour; it must do. The city turned a film - The World's Fastest Indian - into an annual festival that pulls punters from as far afield as Japan, the US and the UK. During one week in November you can step back in automotive time, follow the tourist trail, or watch today's two-wheeled heroes cheat death on the road and track.

Alongside you will be a mix of folk you'll never see anywhere else: well-dressed lunching ladies, leather-clad, helmet-wielding beardies, young dudes with low-slung jeans and pierced nostrils, and families out to have a good time.

But they do have one key thing in common - they're all here to experience good old southern hospitality, for when Invercargill folk do something, they do it properly.

Celebrate a crusty old racer? Forget running a race in his name - this lot arrange a week of it; plenty of time to take in all the racing you want, and some of the region's gorgeous scenery.

There's much to like about this often windswept landscape, but to get the most of your week you'll arrive by November 24's start date, in time for the first running of the New Zealand Longtrack Speedway Championship at Ascot Park on Wednesday evening.

Thursday brings the Bluff Hill Climb. Find a spot along the course - or save yourself for the more traditional events and drive to Gore for the day.

This sleepy little Otago town is worth exploring. Start out at the Hokonui Moonshine Museum, to celebrate a local brewery forever famous for the exploits of its intrepid bush distillers.

Next door's tiny museum tells the story of early Southland life through the everyday folk who lived here; from their wedding dresses to their mangles, fishing rods and spades.

Too much culture? Take a break for lunch at Mandeville's old railway hotel - now Moth restaurant - then walk round the original Kingston Flyer steam train, admire the aircraft being restored, or pluck up the courage for a Tiger Moth flight.

Soaring through Otago's blue skies readies you for soaring of a different kind - through the visual imagination of the masters. The Eastern Southland gallery delivers an unexpected treasure trove; a permanent Ralph Hotere exhibit, and the John Money collection with its explosively colourful paintings.

There's still the Creamota Mill, the trout fishing and bush walks - but you'll need to be fresh for Friday, when New Zealand's quickest riders emulate Burt Munro and hurtle down the flat expanse of Oreti Beach to disappear in salt haze, rocketing toward that distant finish line.

It can be lovely here in November, but if the wind's from the south, you'll feel the kiss of the Antarctic. Fortunately, several nearby cafes sell excellent lattes and hot chocolates.

If you've had enough of racing, head out to Riverton. It's along the Southland Scenic Route, its jewel of a harbour tucked snugly into the coast where cafes and play parks look out to sea. There's a flax mill, a vintage tractor museum and a string of art galleries to admire, but don't miss the Hikoi Cultural Heritage museum and its interactive displays.

Fresh with inspiration, tramp the forest hovering above the town, or drive a few kilometres to Colac Bay and check out its giant surfer. Pop into Isobel's weaving studio, search for ancient fossils, or fossick along gemstone beach for the jasper, quartz and garnet that dot this coast.

You won't want to miss Saturday's sprint races at Teretonga, but if you're like me, you'll need a solid southern breakfast and a good strong coffee to start your day - there's plenty of choice along Invercargill's wide main street.

On your way to the races, keep an eye out for the Victorian water tower, a red brick confection built in 1889 and still in use, its 297,000-litre tank providing back-up pressure for the city's mains. If the kids are restive, swoop past Queens Park to spot the grazing deer, or look in at the Southland museum with its 50 live tuatara.

After all, there's plenty of time for the sprints at the short-track speedway. Here you'll rub shoulders with the bikers from the nearby rally; a good-humoured bunch as likely to usher grandma to the front as to use a little colourful language when their favoured rider succumbs to gravity - as they do, given the extreme angles at which they lean during their handlebar-to-handlebar jousting.

By now you'll be biked out and in need of a juicy steak and a warming glass of red. Tomorrow there's the street race at Wyndham, when New Zealand's quickest racers hurtle past shops and pubs to conclude the year's Burt Munro Challenge.

Had enough? Keep an eye out for me; I'll be touring home via the gorgeous Catlins Rd. I'll be laden with speciality cheeses and gourmet chocolates created at the Seriously Good Chocolate Company. And I'll aim for Fleur's Place at Moeraki for a lunch to remember, overlooking the fishing boats hauling in the catch that'll hit Fleur's pan come supper.

Back when Burt Munro was just a thorn in his neighbours' side, piddling on his lemon trees and waking the district with pre-dawn engine tests, they couldn't have suspected this old coot would be the one to put Invercargill on the world map.

If you go

* The fifth annual Burt Munro Challenge runs from November 24-28.

Make sure you've booked accommodation ahead as there will be an extra 20,000 visitors to the region for the event.

To book tickets or get info on local accommodation, travel, event times and venues go to burtmunrochallenge.com.

* Visit invercargill.org.nz - if nothing else to see Invercargill's quirky mayor talking up the region's delights.

- Herald on Sunday

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